Saturday, January 30, 2010

Caveat Emptor and the Craft Beer Consumer

I recently picked up a bottle of BrewDog’s Dogma, a new imported beer from a Scottish craft brewer previously unrepresented in this area. My intent was to evaluate and properly review the beer contained within for a future article but a few tell-tale signs lead me to abandon such an attempt. As happens on occasion in the craft beer world, especially with the new and imported, I was in possession of a bad bottle.

BrewDog Ltd. is a very experimental, “American-style” microbrewery located in Fraserburgh, Scotland, with beers only newly arrived in the North Texas market. I use the term “American-style” because BrewDog differs from the standard European brewing industry—steeped in tradition and loyal to regional styles—and instead is daring and boundlessly nontraditional with their products. Only a couple of months ago, BrewDog made international news with the “world's strongest beer” at 32% ABV.

Dogma is an herb/spiced beer brewed with additions of guarana, poppy seeds, kola nut and Scottish heather honey. Sometimes one can form an expectation of the flavor of a beer before sampling, but this unique combination of ingredients proved a challenge. Based on the description, some sort of lightly spiced, nutty, slightly honey-sweet beverage should have been forthcoming.

Instead, the beer that poured from this bottle was flat and lifeless with a taste to match, somewhat of an ripe, tangy flavor and a slightly not-so-unpleasant element that just was not quite right. It did not exhibit any of the typical characteristics of an infected beer (such as obvious sourness or a green apple flavor) or of oxidation (such as a stale or cardboardy element) but something in the profile just did not add up.

Suspicious, I referenced a few online reviews of this same beer and found almost no correlation between other drinkers’ descriptions and the beverage before me. My guess is that I purchased an old or mistreated bottle—which will happen occasionally in each beer drinker’s career. Especially vulnerable are imports newly arrived on the Texas market, beers of unknown provenance that not only cross the oceans under dubious storage conditions but may also sit in state-side warehouses for months on end awaiting regulatory approval.

Texas is especially guilty of this problem. Commercial approval of new beers for sale in our state’s markets can be tediously lengthy and expensive, with delays ranging from disputes over alcoholic strength to stylistic classifications to minor elements included on the labels. During this time, beers will sit—and where they sit and the environment in which they are kept is an unknown quantity.

Naturally, heat is an enemy of fresh beer and it is doubtful products are stored in the same sort of stifling warehouses as furniture, clothing or other environmentally durable goods. But imports (as well as many domestic brands) can suffer during transport periods without cooling controls, and even some areas of storage under air-conditioned units can be much warmer than intended, such as shelves stacked high off the ground.

One obvious sign of mishandling is a thick layer of sediment caked at the bottom of a bottle. Upon disturbing the beer, the detritus floats in suspension and can leave an otherwise delicious beer rather unappetizing, almost like a glass full of dietary fiber supplement. This is a positive indication that the beer has been through relatively rough temperature ranges, causing solids and proteins to fall out of their normal suspension.

The lesson here is that there is an unwritten element to evaluating craft beers, and that is to always consider the possibility of a mishandled or old bottle. Rare circumstances such as this should not reflect negatively on a brewer, and are most often remedied once distribution channels are established and refreshed regularly. Bringing such matters to the attention of your retailer is also a good idea, as they should also benefit from as much feedback as you can provide.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Beers Texas Needs

In case you had not noticed, the young Texas craft beer market is currently flourishing. We are seeing an unprecedented number of national brands and imports arriving almost weekly, and our in-state commercial brewers are the strongest they have been since the reckless microbrew expansion of the dot-com era.

Naturally, all the stylistic basics seem to be covered. Amber ales and Vienna-style lagers are quite popular and widespread, as are many variations of the well-liked wheat or weizen styles. We have plenty of quality helles lagers, and fall brings an abundance of new Oktoberfest beers each year. We have a couple of decent IPAs (although we could always use more) and a few great stouts, albeit with the latter not truly in high demand with our grueling Texas summers.

So where do we go from here? What direction should Texas brewers take with their products, and which will prove the most successful? What gaps remain to be filled? The good news is that many market niches have already been identified and satisfied most profitably. We have schwarzbiers and Dortmunders and variations on the kölsch, all of which are great additions to our landscape. But we have still missed a few of the obvious.

Bock. The historical settlement of Central Texas is one of German and Czech immigrants, imparting a long and noble history of Germanic brewing to the Lone Star State. Yet too few breweries today embrace this heritage, particularly with respect to bocks and their subcategories. We do have maibocks and limited spring seasonals, but it seems craft brewers are content to relinquish the bock style to Spoetzl (even though Shiner is no longer categorized as a bock) when instead this state should have a market flooded with bocks from every brewhaus. And a popular state-brewed doppelbock is long overdue.

Münich dunkel. The dunkel, a slightly darker, roastier cousin of the Vienna lager, would make a fine competitor for either the dark, sweet lager that is now Shiner or as an alternative to brewing a true bock-style beer. Unfortunately, the only dunkels to be found in Texas are either imported from Germany or from Mexico, which has embraced its German and Austrian brewing heritage better than Texas has.

Berliner weisse. To brew a Berliner weisse for the scorching Texas heat should not even be debated. This low-alcohol wheat beer brings a refreshing lemon and citrus lactic tang to the traditional weizen already popular in hot weather. The proven success of hefeweizen and witbier in our state should prompt local craft brewers to explore all the variations of the weizen styles.

Rauchbier. Another seemingly obvious choice is the rauchbier, a German lager similar to a bock that is brewed with smoked malt and often with an addition of rye. The smoky flavor can be anywhere from subtle campfire to full bacon-flavored beverage, and its obvious pairing with native Texas barbecue should make it a commercial success if only for cooks building their marinades.

Czech pilsner. Despite being the most numerous commercial beer style on the market today, pilsners have drifted too far away from their authentic Bohemian origins. Instead of being smooth, sweet and forgettable, true Czech pilsners can be hopped as strongly as American IPAs using Saaz and other noble hops yet can remain equally as refreshing as a tame marketable lager.

Eisbock. Including an eisbock on this list is a guilty indulgence on my part but still one that may be economically competitive. A traditional strong bock is brewed and then held below freezing for a duration, after which the frozen water content is physically removed as ice (ethanol has a much lower freezing point than water). What remains is a high-gravity commercial competitor to barleywines and imperial stouts that is as smooth as schnapps and relatively unique to the marketplace.

Granted, a few of these styles have already been attempted by in-state brewers—even with ongoing success—but few remain as permanent products on the state’s large landscape. If existing and future brewers adopted German styles more, perhaps a unique national identity could successfully arise for Texas craft brewing.